By Michael Shank and US Congressman Hank Johnson
Take oil out of the foreign policy picture, and American presidents would have lacked motive to preemptively attack Iraq, Libya and now Iran. There were equally authoritarian leaders of other countries at the time, operating with even greater propensity toward violence, yet the U.S. didn’t intervene. Why? Little oil. Yemen is an obvious example, but so are Sudan, Myanmar and Ivory Coast. The list goes on.
Obvious, yes. But let’s stop for a minute, before we make the same mistake again in the Middle East with the same results, and before we continue down the military- and-security-speak rabbit hole that’ll make this threat appear different than the myriad previous ones.
This modus operandi of preemptive strikes—always packaged within the prospects of looming violence unless the U.S. intervenes as soon as possible, and with the promised certainty of confidential, out-of-reach “intelligence”—appears to be America’s prevailing foreign policy protocol. It wouldn’t have to be, of course, if we’d transition our grid and transport off dirty fuels and onto something borderless, like solar or wind.
Data from the Organization of the Petroleum Exporting Countries, which accounts for roughly 80 percent of the world’s proven oil reserves, illustrate the repeated American invasion story in the Middle East. Iraq has more than 12 percent of OPEC’s proven crude oil reserves, Libya has 4 percent, and Iran has over 13 percent. Let’s add Kuwait, with more than 8 percent, to include the U.S. presidential invasions of the 1990s.
What the U.S. has done, historically, with all of the top reserve-holding countries is first cozy up in order to control. If that didn’t work, then destabilize in order to control. And if that didn’t work, then invade in order to control.
America was never shy in coveting Iran’s reserves or, for that matter, Venezuela’s, which are OPEC’s largest share at more than 300 billion barrels. Saudi Arabia, meanwhile, with OPEC’s second highest reserves, was content with being cozy. No destabilization or invasion needed.
America has tried all three approaches with Iran. One of the most historically egregious is well known but oft forgotten in America: The CIA helped overthrow Iran’s democratically elected leader, Prime Minister Mohammad Mossadegh, in the 1950s because he wanted to return Iran’s oil supply to its people. Iran’s reserves were then controlled by the Anglo-Iranian Oil Company, a British corporation that is now part of BP, and Mossadegh wanted to nationalize them (note a similar history in Venezuela). Iranians have not forgotten America’s undermining of their democracy. It’s always front and center.
Last month’s escalation by President Donald Trump, then, in killing Iran’s top General Qassem Soleimani, reopens an old, festering wound that had been healing, albeit slightly, from President Barack Obama’s—and Europe’s—agreement with Tehran to negotiate nuclear rights and responsibilities, an agreement Trump shredded upon arrival in the Oval Office.
What happens next is frightening and will be fueled, no doubt, by the election cycle and the proclivity of voters to keep wartime presidents in power. Undoubtedly, the White House will want to act without congressional approval, something the House of Representatives is working to arrest. Last month, the House passed the No War Against Iran Act, which blocks funding for military force in or against Iran unless Congress has signed off. We’ve been here before with previous presidents, and we’ll continue to assert Congress’ role in deciding whether or not military maneuvers should be funded with taxpayer dollars.
But what’s most disheartening is that all of this could be easily de-escalated. For too long, we’ve let oil make Middle East relations with America a combustible impossibility. For too long, we’ve let this singular dirty fuel make for dirty politics and disastrous policy. For too long, we’ve let our foreign policy be guided by petrol politics.
Before we get entrenched into another longest war and fail, yet again, to conquer and control another Middle East resource-rich country, let’s remove the most combustible part of America’s foreign policy—its oil—and start moving funds into that which is less contested.
Switching the U.S. power grid to renewables, for example, would cost us $2 trillion less than what we’ve spent on the war on terror in the past 20 years. The American people have spent $6.4 trillion on the war on terror since the turn of the century (and we’re headed quickly toward $7 trillion).
In contrast, only $4.5 trillion is needed to convert America’s entire power grid to renewable energy. We could use the $2 trillion difference to incentivize a hasty transition to electric transport, while setting aside a mere $300 billion—or one-fifth of what taxpayers will spend in total on the Department of Defense’s $1.5 trillion-dollar Joint Strike Fighter program—to halt global warming entirely. Boom, done. It’s ours for the taking if we want it.
It’s time we get our priorities straight, America. Yes, of course we should be engaged in conflict prevention and de-escalation. That’s what a responsible global citizen does. It makes much sense that we’d be engaged in conflict resolution in Iraq, Libya or Iran. But that conflict work will be much more likely to succeed—with diplomats and development agencies empowered to do their job—if we take the most combustible component out of the equation.
It’s time to quit our addiction to oil, America, before our addiction’s worst habits—its propensity towards violence—consumes us all. With each new Middle East war, we get dangerously closer to our own self-destruction, and if we’re not careful, it’s going to hit us hard and when we least expect it. Time to end our oil dependence now, before we end ourselves.
U.S. Representative Hank Johnson of Georgia is a member of the House Judiciary Committee. Michael Shank is the communications director of the Carbon Neutral Cities Alliance and adjunct faculty at NYU’s Center for Global Affairs.
The views expressed in this article are the writers’ own.